I vividly remember the Afro-Brazilian recipes of Bahia in Northeast Brazil. I can still recall the complex flavors of moqueca de peixe, a delicious fish stew with coconut milk and dendê palm oil, a redolent reminder of the tragedy and the resilience of the Middle Passage, bobó de camarão, made with shrimp and cassava, and vatapá, a creamy paste of bread, palm oil, cassava, and shrimp. I committed to memory the names of the recipes, their ingredients, and the necessary techniques to make the dishes. But I cannot recall the names of the ladies who taught me how to cook them.
Thanks to photography, their faces have not faded. I have looked through my notes, stared at the pictures of the day we spent together in that hot kitchen, sweating and laughing, trying to understand each other in my broken Portuguese. Still, their names are gone.
I met the talented cooks during a vacation on the beach of Itapuã, the place where Jorge Amado's most famous cook, Dona Flor, succumbed to the charms of the womanizing Vadinho. It is a place whose languorous beauty inspired Vinicius de Moraes and Toquinho to write a song by the same name. Captivated by Bahian cuisine, I asked the ladies who cooked in my little bed and breakfast to teach me some of their recipes. At first they looked at me like I was out of my mind. After all, I was European, white, and a male. I certainly had no place among their pots. But after some coaxing, with the mediation of the owner and the promise to invite all the staff to join in the meal that would follow the cooking, I finally convinced them to share their culinary know-how with me. I got excited when I saw the fish and shrimp they bought from the fishermen a couple of blocks away, the root vegetables, the cashew nuts that would give texture to the dishes.
We spent a few hours cooking. These ladies generously instructed me on how to utilize the new ingredients, how to deal with their unusual consistencies, and how to know to avoid overcooking them. We bantered and cackled. They made fun of my ineptitude regarding cassava flour and complimented my stirring skills. We devoured the memorable meal with the waiters, cleaning ladies, and security staff, enjoying each others' company beyond any cultural and social divide. Democracy around the table, I proudly reflected.
But what were their names? What personal stories lead them to cook in the bed and breakfast where I was vacationing? I can't remember, and I am not even sure I asked. So engrossed in the possibility of a foray in a fascinating culture, I sucked in information that I knew I could share with my students, back in the classroom. Picturing myself in the role of the cultural mediator, I fell in the mold of the colonizer. I took what I needed, practicing my well engrained, albeit involuntary, entitlement; I joined a long series of scholars, explorers, and cookbook authors that made a name for themselves by using other people's knowledge and experience, without even bothering to mention their names. How many times have we cooked from books that taut their loyalty to a supposedly authentic and exotic cuisine? We trust the authors to have done their homework and to have tested the recipes, making them accessible to us, intrepid culinary tourists. We admire these writers and their expertise, and we are ready to pay good money to have access to it. However, royalties rarely trickle down to the women, the cooks, the artisans, the cleaning ladies, the shopkeepers that are the actual source of the recipes and the practical tips we so enjoy. Despite our best intents, we repeat a cycle that smacks of appropriation, or at least manipulation. I doubt the ladies that introduced me to the subtleties of Bahian cuisine will ever read this, but I still want to apologize. Of course, this will only make feel me better. Once again, they won't be sharing any royalties.